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Piracy: You can compete with free, but only if you get into the game

Piracy

People will pay for content — but if they can’t get it legally, they will get it illegally. Holding content back ultimately hurts sales.

That’s the takeaway from Michael D. Smith’s presentation on piracy this week at the Digital Book World conference in New York. While he was talking mostly about e-book piracy, his insights should certainly transfer to the comics industry.

Smith, a professor of information technology and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University, launched his talk with some “myths,” including the notion that publishers “can’t compete with free.” In fact, they can; it’s just a matter of marketing. But they have to be willing to sell the book to begin with. This article by Jeremy Greenfield on the Digital Book World site summarizes one publisher’s experience that mirrors what is going on in comics:

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Comics A.M. | DC Comics sticking with hardcover-first policy

DC Comics

Publishing | Bob Wayne, DC Comics’ senior vice president of sales, and John Cunningham, vice president of marketing, discuss May sales figures, which show the publisher edging closer to Marvel in market share and Batman topping Justice League. Wayne also explained why DC won’t change its practice of publishing collected editions first in hardcover, then as inexpensive paperbacks: “While certain titles do get a deluxe or an Absolute Edition at some point, we think our retailer would be leaving a lot of money on the table if we didn’t give consumers the chance to buy hardcovers first on select titles. The sales we are having in both channels on Batman and Justice League in the month of May indicate that we don’t have that many people waiting the trade, looking for that cheaper edition. A lot of people seem to want a nice durable hardcover and we plan to follow this model for the foreseeable future.” [ICv2]

Piracy | Manga scanlators (and proprietors of other bootleg comics sites, such as HTMLComics.com) have argued that reading manga on their sites is no different from checking it out of the library. Librarian and graphic novel expert Robin Brenner explains why that just isn’t so. [About.com]

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Comics A.M. | Judge refuses to suppress evidence in Justiniano case

Josue Rivera (aka Justiniano)

Legal | Don MacPherson, who covers the courts for his daily newspaper, updates the case of Josue Rivera, aka comic artist Justiniano, who pleaded not guilty in May 2011 to charges of possessing more than 100 photographs and videos containing child pornography. Rivera was arrested in Connecticut following a July 2010 incident in which police say he mistakenly gave a funeral home director a thumb drive containing 33 files classified as child pornography instead of the one containing photos of a deceased relative. Police later seized Rivera’s computer and found 153 files of suspected child pornography. A judge has denied a motion to suppress the thumb drive, which Rivera’s attorney had argued was obtained by police through an illegal, warrantless search. However, the judge ruled the search valid, as the material on the drive was brought to the attention of the police by a third party, the funeral home. MacPherson’s summary of court documents provides more details on the case. [Eye on Comics]

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Mark Waid makes life easy for file-sharers

Mark Waid has really put his money where his mouth is: After preaching the gospel of the “culture of sharing” for a couple of years now, he’s making his comic Insufferable available for anyone to download and share.

Although the comic is available for free from his Thrillbent website, he found that within 24 hours the first chapter had been copied and uploaded to torrent and file-sharing sites. “The only thing that startled me was that it took 24 hours,” he said, and sure enough, the next two chapters were uploaded even faster. And he’s happy about it:

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ComiXology: Over 50 million served — but how many sold?

ICv2 kicks off the week with an interesting bit of digital comics news: More than 50 million comics have been downloaded from the digital comics distributor comiXology since it launched in July 2009. This news comes in a bit of a void, as digital comics distributors, unlike Diamond Comic Distributors, don’t release their sales numbers. Perhaps ICv2 CEO Milton Griepp, who is on the comiXology board, has some insider knowledge, because the article adds that 5 million of the downloads occurred in December alone — in other words, 10 percent of the total downloads over the entire life of the business occurred in a single month. No word on January or February, though. Also, the article notes that “a significant percentage of the 5 million comics downloaded were free.” Which immediately (at least in my mind) raises the question, “What’s the percentage?” It must be pretty high, as ICv2 estimated the entire digital comics market in 2011 at $25 million; even if everybody bought their comics at comiXology, during one of its 99-cent sales, that would still mean only half the downloads were paid.

With the statistics out of the way, the article goes on to discuss the usual questions of whether digital sales are supplanting or supplementing print and how piracy figures into all of this. Ten points to Top Cow’s Filip Sablik for this observation:

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Comics A.M. | Putting ‘Panel Parity’ into practice; JManga goes global

X-Club #3

Creators | Novelist and X-Club writer Simon Spurrier recounts how he gave up his seat on a panel at last weekend’s London Super ComicCon to creator Tammy Taylor, in the spirit of “Panel Parity”: “Paul’s idea is that you can’t expect true gender parity in comics unless you create the conditions to facilitate it. Even if one has to dabble in positive discrimination, even if one must expect outraged cries of ‘tokenism!,’ ‘political correctness gone mad!,’ ‘patronising cockcentric condescension!,’ it’s worth it. So Paul created a movement he called ‘Panel Parity’ in which he planned to exercise the only real power he has – like any of us in the weird world of industry conventions – to make a difference. Paul pledged that whenever he’s invited onto a panel which doesn’t feature at least 50% women, he’ll surrender his own seat to a female speaker. Even if that means tracking down someone less ‘well-suited’ to discussing the topic at hand than himself. Even if it means disappointing people in the crowd who travelled to the show specifically to see him talk. As long as Said SheGuest is able to contribute in some way to the conversation, Paul feels her presence on stage is more valuable than his own. Which is a brave and important and splendid thing to say.” [Simon Spurrier]

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Comics A.M. | Marvel’s big push for AvX; New 52 hurting GN sales?

AvX #1

Publishing | David Gabriel, Marvel’s senior vice president of publishing, says that Marvel is putting “the biggest marketing investment that we’ve ever put into a series or an event” behind its upcoming Avengers vs. X-Men event. The campaign will include online, social media, radio and television promotion. “They’re actually treating every issue as an event, because there’s a different fight going on in every issue, and I’m told that they are pushing every single issue through all 12 issues,” Gabriel said. “The story itself has three acts, and each of those acts has a natural marketing hook to it, so they’re pushing those as well.” [ICv2]

Publishing | While DC’s New 52 has been good for comics sales overall, there is a dark side: Sales of pre-reboot collected editions are down. ICv2 also lists the Top 10 comics and graphic novel franchises in a number of different genres. [ICv2]

Legal | The Justice Department brought more charges of fraud and copyright infringement against Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom and his colleagues on Friday, but also revealed that Megaupload isn’t all that mega: The file-sharing site had only 66.6 million users, not the 180 million previously claimed, and fewer than 6 million had ever actually uploaded a file. The indictment mentions one user who uploaded almost 17,000 items, including copyrighted movies, which were viewed 34 million times. [The Washington Post]

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Viz lowers the boom on scanlators

Just two weeks after Viz debuted Shonen Jump Alpha, its digital replacement for Shonen Jump, the publisher has forced a group of fan translators to stop posting chapters of a number of Viz series.

The scanlation group Mangastream posted the news on Saturday that Viz had forced it to stop releasing chapters of seven series, including the ultra-popular Naruto, Bleach, and One Piece, which are included in Shonen Jump Alpha. They couldn’t resist a snort of derision:

They’ve succeeded in little more than invoking inconvenience to the community as their digital magazine missed the mark; it runs several issues behind and only features 3 of the above series. So long as their product continues to be slow, awkward and inferior to something a ragtag group of nobodies can churn out in a few hours – fans will continue to look to scanlation groups and aggregators for their weekly fix.

This is the first time that I can recall (someone will probably correct me on this if I’m wrong) that a publisher has gone after the scanlators themselves, rather than the sites that carry their work. Onemanga.com, once one of the top 1,000 sites on the whole internet, and most of the other “free manga” sites are aggregators who depend on a handful of speed scanlators to bring them the latest chapters of the most popular titles. While shutting down those sites has proved problematic, cutting off their source of material may be more effective than a cease-and-desist letter. On the other hand, it may not: one aggregator site lists 363 translators for Naruto alone.

One fan took their complaint right to the source, the Shonen Jump forum:

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Read Skullkickers for free on Keenspot

The fantasy-action-comedy comic Skullkickers was one of the surprise hits of the past year, and now the creators are going to post the back issues on Keenspot. The web version starts out with two prequels, short stories that writer Jim Zubkavich and artist Chris Stevens created for Image’s Popgun Anthology.

While it may seem odd to post a comic for free while it’s still available for sale, this move makes a lot of sense: I’m guessing single issues that came out more than a year ago are no longer readily available (although digital editions still are at comiXology), but as the trades have sold pretty well, the creators may figure the value of the new readers who will come to the comic through Keenspot — and ultimately buy the print or digital editions — will more than compensate for any sales lost from those people who might have paid but decided to read Skullkickers for free instead.

This is a calculation every creator should make, because it may lead them to choose, as Zubkavich & Co. have done, to pre-empt the pirates and make their work available online on their own terms.

Comics A.M. | Angoulême begins; judges come to cartoonist’s rescue

Angoulême

Conventions | Wim Lockefeer lines up the exhibits he’s looking forward to at the 39th Angoulême International Comics Festival, which begins today in Angoulême, France. [The Forbidden Planet International Blog Log]

Legal | Cartoonist Albert Lekgaba was sketching the proceedings of the Botswana Court of Appeal when security officers asked to step out of the courtroom, confiscated his work, and told him he could not draw in court, “especially if the judges were present.” When the judges learned of this, however, they informed the court registrar that sketching is indeed allowed, and they ordered that Lekgaba be readmitted to the courtroom and his sketches returned to him. [The Botswana Gazette]

Passings | California newspaper cartoonist John Lara has died at age 56. [Coastline Pilot]

Creators | Heidi MacDonald sums up a number of recent posts on piracy and the creative life in one mega-post, and a lively discussion follows in the comments section. [The Beat]

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Comics A.M. | San Diego Convention Center plan advances

San Diego Convention Center

Conventions | San Diego City Council on Tuesday approved the basic funding plan for the proposed $500 million expansion of the San Diego Convention Center, home to Comic-Con International. At the center of the financing scheme is an assessment district that adds between between 1 cents and 3 cents per dollar to room taxes of 224 hotels with more than 30 rooms. Those hotels closest to the convention center would be assessed an extra 3 cents per dollar, and those farthest away could be charged an extra penny per dollar.

The expansion plan has a ticking clock, as Comic-Con has signed a deal to remain in San Diego through 2015, but larger venues in Las Vegas and Anaheim have been lobbying organizers to look elsewhere. [NBC San Diego]

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U.S. House and Senate call off votes on PIPA and SOPA

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid this morning postponed a vote on the PROTECT IP Act, a controversial anti-piracy bill that, along with the House’s Stop Online Piracy Act, drew widespread online protest just two days earlier.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House  Judiciary Committee, quickly responded to the announcement by shelving SOPA “until there is wider agreement on a solution.”

The delays appear to be indefinite, with Reid suggesting that PIPA sponsor Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) redraft the proposed legislation, saying in a statement, “There is no reason that the legitimate issues raised by many about this bill cannot be resolved.”

“I encourage him to continue engaging with all stakeholders to forge a balance between protecting Americans’ intellectual property, and maintaining openness and innovation on the internet,” Reid (D-Nevada) continued. “We made good progress through the discussions we’ve held in recent days, and I am optimistic that we can reach a compromise in the coming weeks.”

In his statement, Smith added: “I have heard from the critics and I take seriously their concerns regarding proposed legislation to address the problem of online piracy. It is clear that we need to revisit the approach on how best to address the problem of foreign thieves that steal and sell American inventions and products.”

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Comics A.M. | FBI shuts down Megaupload file-sharing site

Megaupload

Legal | The U.S. Justice Department and the FBI on Thursday shut down the popular file-sharing site Megaupload, seized $50 million in assets and charged its founder and six others with running an international enterprise based on Internet piracy that’s cost copyright holders at least $500 million in lost revenue. The FBI has begun extradition proceedings in New Zealand to bring company founder Kim Schmitz, aka Kim DotCom, to the United States. He and three other associates are being held without bail until Monday, when they’ll receive a new hearing. Three others remain at large. They face a maximum of 20 years in prison.

News of the shutdown was met with retaliation by the hacker collective Anonymous, which attacked the websites of the Justice Department and the Motion Picture Association of America.

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Greed and giant robots brought down Bandai

The big news in anime and manga circles last week was the announcement that Bandai Entertainment will stop releasing new anime and manga. The current catalog will stay in print, and the company will focus on licensing its products to other companies, but three of its five employees have been laid off.

Like manga, the anime industry in the U.S. has been troubled for a long time, and it’s tempting to blame this on piracy. Indeed, that’s exactly what Charles Maib of Kotaku did. Maib admits he doesn’t follow the anime and manga scene much any more, but that doesn’t stop him from delivering some strong opinions. What Maib does know is what it was like to be an old-time otaku, when you made your own fansubs with love and VHS tapes and chewing gum and chicken wire (which may have been technically illegal but wasn’t harming the industry at all), and also how much work it is to make your own content. Maib himself is a content creator, and he has a long paragraph where he explains all the steps you have to go through to make an animated cartoon.

And nobody seems to care. “Consumers have become selfish monsters who are strangling an industry that is already on its knees,” he says, and he points the finger squarely at fansubbers and other pirates, and those who avail themselves of their services:

We created the beast, and we continue to feed it. We’ve reached the point that it’s not uncommon for major websites to publish links to pirated content. Pirating has gone mainstream, and unless we as consumers have the fortitude to reverse our actions, allow the market to work as it should, and develop the patience to wait for new products to become available in our region, or even not become available, the face of the internet and digital media will change. It’s inevitable.

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Viz honchos talk digital

Manga blogger extraordinaire Deb Aoki sat down with the Viz folks at NYCC and asked some hard questions about their relaunch of Shonen Jump as a digital magazine (to be renamed Shonen Jump Alpha). The magazine will be available via the Viz iOS app and the Vizmanga.com website, but only in the U.S. and Canada.

Aoki asked Viz VP of digital publishing Brian Piech when Shonen Jump Alpha would be available in other regions, and he responded that it depends on Viz parent company Shueisha, which controls the rights. Simply put, Viz has the print rights in the U.S. and Canada, and other companies have those rights in other countries:

This is something that the entire publishing industry is dealing with, not just manga. Digital rights (to a given book or manga) wasn’t always included in the original contracts.

Now, with everything that’s happening, everyone wants the digital rights. But it’s not clear if the print publisher (of a given book in a given territory) has first dibs, or if the rights holder can just shop (the digital rights) around to whomever wants it.

So it’s possible that someone will be publishing Naruto digitally in other countries, but it won’t necessarily be Viz.

There are pretty much three reasons for piracy—price, speed, and regional availability. Viz has the speed thing licked—with the launch of Shonen Jump Alpha, they will be publishing chapters of six of the most popular manga in the U.S. within two weeks of their Japanese release, and there’s a good chance that they may eventually go to simultaneous release in the two countries. On price, the ability to buy a chapter for the magic price of 99 cents (through Viz’s website as well as iOS apps) is a pretty good deal for the casual reader (although the yearly subscription price of $25.99 is a better deal in the long term). But region restrictions, whatever the reason, are bad news; they seem to be driving a lot of the traffic on pirate sites, judging from the comments. Two out of three ain’t bad—but if Shonen Jump Alpha does well, and the Shueisha honchos loosen the restrictions, that hat trick could prove very lucrative for Viz.


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